An antecedent (AN-tuh-SEE-dent) is a grammatical device in which a pronoun, noun, or other word refers to an earlier noun or phrase. For example, in the sentence “Sally walked her dog,” the pronoun her refers to Sally, making Sally the antecedent. Most commonly, an antecedent has a personal pronoun, as it does in the previous example (her), a demonstrative pronoun like this or that, or a relative pronoun like who or which.
If an antecedent is singular, the pronoun that replaces it will also be singular; if an antecedent is plural, its pronoun is also plural. One notable exception is when gender is not clear in the antecedent. In the sentence “The child put on their coat,” their refers to the gender-neutral antecedent child because the information provided doesn’t specify the child’s gender from. If an antecedent denotes a specific gender identity, the pronoun will match it (e.g., Sally and her).
The word antecedent comes from the Latin antecedere—anti, meaning “before,” and cedere, meaning “go”—so the word literally means “go before.”
Different Antecedent Constructions
There are several ways to craft antecedents in sentences. As said, a noun is the antecedent to its corresponding pronoun; thus, the noun almost always comes before the pronoun. But, there are different ways the nouns and pronouns can appear. Here are some of the most common combinations.
- A singular noun as an antecedent: “When you talk to Jim, send him my regards.” Jim is the antecedent of him.
- A noun phrase as an antecedent: “The red car sped down the street. It was traveling 10 miles over the speed limit.” The red car is the antecedent of it.
- A noun as an antecedent to a demonstrative pronoun: A demonstrative pronoun points to something specific within a sentence or group of sentences. For example: “She loved reading spy novels. This was perhaps her greatest pleasure in life.” Reading spy novels is the antecedent of this. In this instance, reading is a gerund, or verb acting as a noun.
- A noun as an antecedent to a relative pronoun: A relative pronoun connects a clause or phrase to a noun. When the clause comes after a noun, the noun is usually the relative pronoun’s antecedent. For example: “Mr. Tunney, who was a favorite teacher among the students, walked to school every day.” Tunney is the antecedent of who.
- Whole clauses and sentences as antecedents: “Bob runs four half-marathons every year. This has become a regular part of his annual schedule.” Bob runs four half-marathons every year is the antecedent to this.
- A collective noun as an antecedent: When a collective noun describes a group behavior, it precedes a singular pronoun. For example: “The pack of wolves howled its moody lament to a full harvest moon.” The pack of wolves is the antecedent to its. When a collective noun describes individual behavior within the group, it precedes a plural pronoun. For example: “The family returned home from vacation, whereupon they each went to the separate rooms.” The family is the antecedent to they.
In some situations, words other than pronouns can appropriately match antecedents.
- A prepositional phrase as an antecedent: In this instance, a preposition, its object, and modifiers act as the antecedent. For example: “The cat wakes up in the afternoons, when the kids get home from school.” In the afternoons is the antecedent of when.
- An adverb as an antecedent: “The leaders of the hiking group crossed the footbridge very cautiously, so the rest of the group did it like that, too.” Very cautiously is the antecedent of like that.
- A verb phrase as an antecedent: In this case, the verb and any direct or indirect object acts as the antecedent. For example: “Ruth earns a steady paycheck, but Randy does not do the same.” Earns a steady paycheck is the antecedent of do the same.
Relationship to Postcedents
A postcedent is a grammatical device in which a pronoun refers to a word or phrase that appears later in the sentence or paragraph. For example, in the sentence “It is unwise to cross when the Don’t Walk light is flashing,” cross when the Don’t Walk light is flashing is the postcedent of It. Though postcedents are technically the opposite of antecedents, the two terms are often used interchangeably to describe any pronoun that refers to another word or phrase in the sentence or paragraph.
The Function of an Antecedent
A clear antecedent is important because it links crucial parts of a sentence or paragraph, allowing for smooth readability and greater understanding. An ambiguous link comes off as overly clunky, causing readers to stop in their tracks and go back to try and connect the two disparate points. For instance, the sentence “Mary told Myrtle she needed to have the book report turned in on Monday” has no clear antecedent for the pronoun she. Is it Mary or Myrtle who needed to have the book report turned in on Monday?
Additionally, a completely mismatched link between an antecedent and its pronoun will result in an illogical sentence. For instance: “After buying milk and butter, Joe put it in the refrigerator.” The antecedent milk and butter is mismatched with the pronoun it. To readers, it is unclear if Joe put the milk in the refrigerator, the butter, or both. Them would make more sense in this sentence.
Examples of Antecedents in Literature
1. Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake. [bolded text added for emphasis]
There is both an antecedent and a postcedent in this excerpt from Frost’s classic poem. My little horse at the beginning of the first stanza is the antecedent of the He that begins the second stanza. The lines To stop without a farmhouse near/ Between the woods and frozen lake/ The darkest evening of the year are the postcedent of It.
2. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly. [bolded text added for emphasis]
These are the opening paragraphs of Hurston’s pioneering novel. In the first, Ships is the antecedent of they, and the first three sentences as a whole are the antecedent to the demonstrative pronoun That. In the second paragraph, women is the antecedent to every use of they.
3. Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives
A few weeks later, I got my first sense of what that life might look like. Mom flew to Memphis to visit my grandmother and while she was away, some Buddhist friends of my mother agreed to take me to my first drag show. I can’t remember how exactly I brought it up, though two of the women were a couple; I must have felt comfortable enough with them to ask. As we sat down at one of the tables in the small club, waiting for the show to start, one of the women asked, “When did you come out to Carol?” [bolded text added for emphasis]
In this passage from Jones’s memoir, my first drag show is the antecedent of it, and two of the women is the antecedent of them.
Further Resources on Antecedents
A Towson University website breaks down proper pronoun-antecedent agreement.
Grammar Girl has some tips for avoiding common antecedent mistakes in writing.
BioMedical Editor discusses how to correct missing antecedents when drafting science or medical writing.
An academic paper by Yohannes Telaumbanua explores “Antecedent and Postcedent” in students’ written discourses.
Bethune College offers tips for writing clear antecedents.